Ballads for barflies: Ute Lemper sings Bukowski at Joe’s Pub

Ute Lemper in Manhattan. ()
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"The tale of Brecht is the tale of Bukowski," Ute Lemper said. And when Ute Lemper says something like that, in her seductively, authoritatively accented English, you believe her, no matter how ridiculous it may seem.

After all, the 47-year-old German singer is one of the greatest living exponents of the work of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and the other legends of Weimar and postwar European chanson. She's the heir to Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya, and she's now, somewhat audaciously, adding the American cult poet Charles Bukowski—the darkly funny bard of drinking and whoring and poverty who died in 1994—to the pantheon of 20th-century cabaret lyricists with a show of his poems, set to Lemper's own music.

She's bringing the show to Joe's Pub at the Public Theater for four performances next weekend, but it's already well traveled. The idea originated last summer, when a festival in Milan commissioned her to do a Bukowski evening. She had, on occasion, included one of his poems as patter between songs in her cabaret evenings, but she had never contemplated something large-scale.

"'Hm,'" she said, recalling her response to the Milan offer in a phone interview from her Manhattan apartment, "'that's kind of a challenge.' And I sat down and put together a journey through 24 poems from three poetry books and set this into music and I just called it 'The Bukowski Project' and it stayed 'The Bukowski Project.'"

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The "project" expanded to a fully-staged multimedia production when she performed it in Spain in the fall. But at Joe's Pub, the show will be seen in its smaller original version—a "workshop," as Lemper calls it, not really meant to be reviewed—but she hopes that this is just the first step toward bringing the larger production to New York, and perhaps to the Public, for a longer run.

Lemper first encountered Bukowski's poetry as a drama student in her teens.

"In Europe, he's very, very loved," she said. "I would say he's even more appreciated in Europe than in the States. The Europeans are slightly more into the darker edge of his poetry, slightly more open to the undigestible aspect of his poetry: The complaint, the darkness, the political aspect. ... It's not entertaining. I'd say the Americans are generally a lighter, more entertaining culture. The Europeans are probably more used, from the history of culture, literature, and everything, to digging a little bit more under the skin, even if it hurts."

She sees in Bukowski's trademark anger the entry point to deeper, more nuanced emotions.

"It's very simplistic outrage," she said, "but yet necessary, and truthful. And later he gets to the more philosophical, sad, deeply sad poetry. About the time, the slow movement, the impossibility to relate to anything around him. It's almost like a begging for forgiveness."

Much of the hurt of Bukowski's poems comes from his vicious, infamous rage, often directed towards women. It's one of the reasons that his work has remained, to a surprising degree for a famous poet, marginal, if divisive on college campuses.

"Of course, it's very sexist stuff," Lemper admitted, "but it's part of his legacy and part of his life story, this disdain for everything, including himself, including men and women. ... I am a woman performing this, [but] I want to try to get away from the gender-specific rage in this poetry and in his body of work. I try to get a little bit more philosophical, to the analysis of the world, to emotion, to the analysis of his own life and soul and heart and mind. It's pretty deep sometimes, and hurtful, but it gets to the point that it's actually very beautiful, what he wrote."

She kept returning to the Brecht comparison—it was almost touching, the way she instinctively connected this newer material to her standards. Like Brecht, she explained, Bukowski went through many chapters in his life, light and dark.

"The older he got, the more philosophical he got," she said, "and the more reflective he became. And the reflection is very humble at the end. ... It reminded me of the humility that Brecht also developed at a later stage."

Even the characters described by the two men are, for Lemper, ultimately the same: "If you look at the characters that are explored in the world of Bertolt Brecht, these are always losers, loners, dreamers, the last survivors in the whiskey bar. The same as the whorehouses, the bordellos, the outcasts, the criminals, the rapists, the murderers, the thieves. It's a world, it's a challenge. It's the antidote to a functioning civilization."

Surprisingly, given her passion for Bukowski, poetry in general doesn't much interest her. Well, other people's poetry, that is. Over the past decade or so, starting on records with her 2003 album But One Day…, she's focused more and more on writing her own songs, and the poetry that matters most to her is her own.

Yet she's never completely abandoned her core repertoire, the songs her smoky voice can deliver as well as anyone ever has. She'll eventually return to her French chansons, and to Berlin, for a little bit of "Cabaret" and "Mack the Knife," even in an evening dominated by, say, the tangos of Astor Piazzolla. Yet, for her, collaborating with Elvis Costello and delving into klezmer, even occasionally veering a bit too close to Sade-esque light jazz, is simply her job.

"Over the past 25 years," she said, "I've taken the audience on various trips and challenges and different repertoire, and why not? That's what you're doing as an artist. You can't always repeat yourself. I think that's a good thing; people come along with me."